Formats Unpacked: Yacht Rock
How a web series format made an unnamed music genre a household name
I’m a big fan of music documentaries. I’ve watched hundreds and worked on a few too. Matt suggested a few weeks ago I do a Formats Unpacked on one of my favourites. It was such a hard choice that I went for one that isn’t a straight-up documentary. It isn’t as well known as some of the greats either, but it has probably had more impact for the artists’ bank balances than many others by introducing a music genre to a new generation. On rewatching it’s clear to see that its NSFW humour hasn’t aged well in places, but the series still serves as a very funny introduction to the genre that had no name.
What’s It Called
Yacht Rock (video web series)
What’s the Format
Yacht Rock is an online video comedy series following the fictionalised lives and careers of American soft rock stars of the late 1970s and early 1980s. It first appeared on Dan Harmon’s pre-YouTube web video site Channel 101 in 2005. It’s set in an era when artists like Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald, Steely Dan, Toto, Hall and Oates, and many others would frequently appear on each other’s records. Each episode is 5 minutes long and tells the story of how the collaborations happened and the songs were made.
The format is a hybrid of rockumentary and reenactments of key moments in the careers of the protagonists, in the style of shows like E! True Hollywood Story and Behind The Music. Writer JD Ryznar, who hates the idea of it being seen as a mockumentary series, describes it as being “completely a straight-up narrative, just with a dude introducing each episode.” That dude being ‘Hollywood’ Steve Huey, VH1 presenter and music journalist. Whilst there is a huge amount of exaggeration in the storylines, the actual collaborations and the connections are real.
The series has been so influential that the term Yacht Rock became the name of a genre that didn’t exist. It neatly pulled together a group of connected artists that would span across multiple genres such as ‘Soft Rock’, ‘Adult Orientated Rock’ and ‘Classic Rock’ - all designed to differentiate the artists from ‘Hard Rock’. The friction between Soft Rock and Hard Rock is a theme that runs throughout the series.
What’s the Magic That Makes it Special?
There’s something really powerful about using parody as a tool for learning music history. Comedy has been used to teach history before. Shows such as Drunk Histories and Horrible Histories have won numerous awards for their educational impact, but when it comes to learning the history of a music genre, I can’t think of a better, or more fun, example.
Before Yacht Rock I didn’t care about the acts or their music, it wasn’t even a secret guilty pleasure. It was just something that seemed out of step with the music I was listening to at the time - mainly punk, new wave and the electronic bands of the early 80s. In the years that followed I wasn’t listening to the music, and I certainly wasn’t sitting down to watch an hour-long deep dive into the genre on VH1. Neither were my friends.
The arrival of the webseries changed all that. Whilst I wasn’t going to watch a documentary about a genre I didn’t like, I’d definitely watch a 5-minute video that poked fun at it. The show created a buzz amongst a group of us that lasted for a few months. Pre-social media and pre-Spotify we shared and listened to the music wherever we could. Then we got serious. Limewire started delivering the music to our hard drives and Wikipedia filled the gaps left by the series. We went from cynics to fans in 4 stages:
1. Denial - “I’d rather die than listen to Toto.”
2. Ironic appreciation - “‘Africa’ by Toto is one of the greatest songs ever written.”
3. True appreciation - “Holy shit - the various members of Toto were Michael Jackson’s backing band on the ‘Thriller’ album.”
4. Evangelism - “I must write a Formats Unpacked just so that I can share that ‘Thriller’ fact with over 1000 people.”
More than a decade later David Beckham chooses “What a Fool Believes” by Michael McDonald and the Doobie Brothers as a Desert Island Disc, TV documentaries are made reappraising the genre, radio channels and compilation albums have popped up named after the genre, and there are hundreds of Yacht Rock playlists on Spotify. Artists like Hall and Oates have cited it as reason for their revival, and Michael McDonald acknowledged the accuracy of the stories whilst selling out arena tours, with many of the tickets bought by much younger fans.
At Storythings we talk a lot about formats providing audiences with a familiar structure, or handrails, to help them navigate complex stories. One of the challenges for Yacht Rock was telling big stories in just 5 minutes. The parody format was perfect for this, as JD Ryznar explains:
“We had a ton to do in five minutes. It’s super important in Channel101 and storytelling in general, that your audience knows RIGHT AWAY what it is they’re watching. The sooner you get them in the loop, the sooner they can relax and enjoy what you’ve done.”
‘Rosanna’ - Steve Porcaro, the keyboard player of the band Toto, is asked by his girlfriend, Rosanna Arquette, to write a song about her, and she wants him to have Michael McDonald sing on the track. Who knew this classic was written about the ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ star?
‘I Keep Forgettin’’ - Long Beach-based rappers Warren G and Nate Dogg struggle with creating smooth rap (yacht rap), and when they accidently kidnap Michael McDonald, find a solution by sampling McDonald’s ‘I Keep Forgettin’’ on ‘Regulate’.
Thanks for reading.
We’re always on the lookout for interesting formats to unpack. We’ve covered a broad range since launching just over a year ago and would love to hear your thoughts on any formats you think should be unpacked. We’d also love to hear from anyone who would fancy unpacking a format themselves. Do get in touch.
Until next time,